Heartless • Signature Theatre
There’s a sign outside the space housing Sam Shepard’s new play that warns of "partial nudity." Sure enough, shortly after it starts, Julianne Nicholson gets out of bed topless, but a long scar running down the length of her chest mitigates any sexual overtones. Nicholson’s character Sally had a heart transplant as a young girl, something Heartless (recently extended through Sep 30)makes much of as it plods forward.
The opening scenes are filled with awkward silences—so awkward, in fact, that it’s unclear if all the silences are intentional or if the play is getting off to a slow, unsteady start. Between these silences, the conversation between Sally, her sister Lucy (Jenny Bacon) and her older lover Roscoe (Gary Cole) sounds like rusty expository dialogue. The characters sit on beds or chairs in the middle of the stage, which is raked at the back and flanked by two palm trees. Heartless takes place in Los Angeles, apparently, but it might as well be Arizona or any other Western state.
After a long-winded dialogue between Roscoe and Sally, Lucy comes back on stage, and when Bacon angrily describes herself as “The sister, that’s right” in her low, resonant voice, the play comes alive. Tension between the characters builds steadily until Lois Smith makes her star entrance, pushed in a wheelchair by a mysterious blond nurse (Betty Gilpin). The electric Smith plays Mable Murphy, Sally and Lucy's mother, a fierce woman whacked out on pain medication. Mable zeroes right in on Roscoe, a 65-year-old Cervantes scholar, and tears him to pieces. Shepard has reserved the lion’s share of his best dialogue for Smith, who makes a meal of lines like, “I don’t subscribe to the cult of apology. Sin is sin. It’s guilt we’re trying to squirm out of.” Mable also muses about the unconditional love of mothers and the harsh expectations of fathers, ideas that will be familiar to anyone versed in Shepard’s work.
While Smith is on stage jawing and squinting and amiably hamming, it’s possible to think that the aimless Heartless is moving toward something more solid thematically. But these hopes are dashed when, in the second act, Shepard reveals just how literal his title is. Gilpin’s nurse, you see, is really the embodied spirit of the murdered little girl whose heart was used for Sally’s operation. My own heart sank at this hackneyed revelation, and then even further when Mable revealed that she was crippled after falling out of a tree because she was trying to get a look at James Dean. Almost 60 years ago, Smith played the whorehouse barmaid in scenes with Dean in East of Eden, so this symbolism has resonance to the actress' storied past as a performer—but limited relevance to the actual play. Heartless is the sort of late-career work that the most fervent admirers of a playwright might find excuses for. But all its felicities of acting and dialogue can't make up for its hoary themes.